It’s all the same for tourists and terrorists when it comes down to it: get downtown and do the sights. When Azam Amir Kasab and his fellow attackers arrived in Mumbai in November 2008, they could have been reading straight from the Rough Guide’s 24-hour essentials. First they took in the opulence of the Taj and the Oberoi, then the everyday hustle and bustle of Victoria Terminus before popping to slaughter the backpacker-Bombay-boho mix at Leopold’s Cafe. Truly, India is a Land of Contrasts. They even managed to blow up an ‘iconic’ Ambassador taxi, such is the literal iconoclasm of fundamentalists.
And then terrorism is swiftly recycled as tourism. The Taj maintains its grandeur even sealed behind a police cordon: a bored patrolman whistles his way along the covered arcade, while the red-carpeted steps are slowly swept. The half-deserted snack bar that looks out over VT’s station concourse has photos on the wall of the damage wreaked on its premises; select bullet-holes are still visible in the shuttered plate glass windows of Leopold’s on the Colaba Causeway. It’s hard to tell whether it’s historical preservation or everyday neglect, but if you get friendly with a waiter he might shift a picture on the wall to show you another bullethole, or gesture to the very spot where colleagues were murdered. It’s nearly as exciting as being asked to be in a Bollywood movie by one of the scouts that patrol the streets nearby.
Some battles are less obvious. Take ‘Mumbai’ vs ‘Bombay’. To a right-minded English person, the decolonisation of place names seems reasonable: re-establishing an indigenous geography warped by the British Empire. But then Bombay didn’t really exist before the Portuguese and British put it together: Surat was the trading port for this part of the Arabian sea. Mumbai is the Marathi way of saying Bombay: the definitive name-change was imposed on the city in 1995 by the right-wing Hinduist Shiv Sena government: ‘Mumbai’ also stands for an ethnic and religious exclusivism, and an antagonism towards North Indians and Muslims. The Sainiks are a nasty bunch all right, instigators of communal violence after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, but they also represent the defeat of India’s communists in their own constituency, the working class. While Bombay is the city of the middle classes comfortable with an imperial multiculturalism in which they occupied an upper berth, Mumbai is the city of the working and lower classes.
Both VS Naipaul in India: A Million Mutinies Now and Suketu Mehta in his more focused work of equal scope, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, begin with a visit to the street operators of the Sena, exhibiting a curious fascination with the troops of an unfamiliar force in Indian politics. These days the BJP has stolen the Sena’s Hindutva thunder on the national stage, and Narendra Modi’s a demon to best the superannuated Bal Thackeray. Even a Gandhi is in on the act: Indira’s grandson Varun, a BJP candidate in the elections has been jailed under security and hatespeech legislation for an inflammatory speech threatening to ‘cut off the hand’ raised against the Hindu majority. The English-language Indian press, written in a code-laden register reminiscent of Variety, talks of him as the ‘poster-boy’ for the ‘saffron party’.
The Bombay action starts in the slums. If you want to, you can see for yourself. We go through the back of a sweetshop and up the stairs to where a business centre shares the first floor with tiny living quarters: a wrong turn takes you into a kitchen. Through the door of a tiny office a man turns off a fan so that we can climb stairs which are practically a ladder; at the top of the stairs is the door to a cupboard-sized office where a representative of Reality Tours takes our booking for a walk through the Dharavi slum, the location and source of child actors for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.
The next day we meet our guide Ganesh at Churchgate station and take a forty-minute commuter train journey to Mahim Junction, where the slum begins, butted right up against the railway tracks, but clearly on the wrong side of them. Our view from the bridge above the station is a jumble of tin roofs stretching for miles. ‘Slum’ doesn’t do the place justice: an informal area of settlement for Gujarati potters and leather workers since the late nineteenth century, it houses nearly a million people. In contrast to downtown Colaba, where begging and street hassle are practised like theatre, during a two-hour tour of the entire area, not one person asks us for money.
What happens here is recycling. When you put your milk cartons and newspapers in a box outside your front door, you’re not ‘doing the recycling’. These people are doing the recycling, and it’s a dirty, disgusting, health-harming job. Rubbish from all over Mumbai is collected and brought here to be processed and then returned to the production cycle. The snaking plumes of smoke making their way up from the tin roofs come from waste paint burning off cans, so they can be beaten back into shape and reused. Aluminium is recycled in fires and moulded into ingots for use elsewhere. Ghee containers are cleaned in boiling water. Needless to say, no-one wears face masks or even gloves. Plastic of all sorts is thrown into noisily rattling chipping machines that shred it into tiny pieces; the pieces are boiled clean, dried and dyed, then melted and extruded into semi-rigid spaghetti which is finally chopped into tiny plastic beads which can be used as raw material in new plastic moulds. They also make the plastic chipping machines themselves in Dharavi. As we walk gingerly through the workshop in which they’re assembled, some of the machines, a lathe in particular, remind me of ones I once worked on.
Communal tensions ran higher in Dharavi after the riots of 1992-3; housing is now organised more along ethno-religious lines than it once was, and Muslim areas are festooned with crescent flags, but it’s far from a battleground. Ganesh proudly shows us a Muslim-owned factory where wooden Hindu shrines are made as an example of communal collaboration and co-operation. The wage of an industrial worker in Dharavi is between 100 and 150 rupees a day; monthly rent is about 1500. Where the factory areas have space between the hutments sufficient to stack and unload materials, the living areas are cramped and close together, the paths between buildings not much more than covered gutters where one person can just about pass another. Crowded rooms where families crouch and cook on the floor are visible through curtain doors. And somewhere in the middle of it all is a shop, clean and brightly-coloured packets of crisps and sweets hanging above the counter just like any other corner shop in India.
In commercial areas there are grocery shops, fresh produce, pharmacies, an ATM; even a cinema showing Slumdog in Tamil. NGOs have built and maintain schools: Reality Tours support one such venture with what they make from showing curious tourists this place. Since the 1990s, residency and building has been formalised to an extent: new construction requires consent by signature from neighbours. It’s not perfect: Ganesh shows us one towerblock where signatures were found forged. Construction was halted, but that didn’t stop people moving in to the half-finished building, barely any better than the shacks. For all that idiots like Brian Eno laud the ‘self-organising’ power of the informal market in slums, infrastructure and social justice remain crucial necessities.
Back in the city that the British built, the towers soar. The southern end of Bombay is a playground for ideas in Gothic decoration that make St Pancras look like the work of Mies van der Rohe. VT, or Victoria Terminus, is now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, renamed like so many things in Mumbai, for a seventeenth century Marathi warrior king and scourge of the Mughals (in the same way that Balkan anti-Muslim sentiment often refers back to the ‘Turkish Yoke’, Hindutva uses the Mughal Empire as the past oppressor of a rightfully Hindu India). The station seems strangely familiar before we even step into it: from Slumdog, from the news footage of the attacks, and from documentation of Patrick Keiller’s incredible multimedia recreation of the station in Lille.
Colaba is a bubble, a heritage vacuum in the heart of the country’s busiest city, but it’s not just for the tourists. Though our hotel’s street is lined with handicraft shops, expensive cars pull up at night outside the swish-looking nightclub. Two streets away they eat tasty seekh kebabs from the vehicles’ hoods, served up from the smoking Bademiya stand. Backpackers are far from cool here: they spoil the vibe for the real cool Mumbaikers. We get asked to move on as soon as we’ve finished eating at hip sisha rooftop hangout Koyla. Shops and hotels have a lot of visible security: mustachioed men in interchangeable police-like khaki uniforms, their cloth-patch badges with a standard-issue space for the firm’s name above the word ‘security’. At the Gateway to India, photographers hold bulky photo-printers under their arm to produce instant pictures of you at the landmark. Hawkers carry enormous brightly-coloured balloons nearly as large as they are, thwacking them suggestively as you pass.
And then, Bombay as a whole is back to front. The Gateway, another Indo-gothic arch built to welcome George V, but best remembered for heralding the last departing British troops from Indian soil, stands facing not the Arabian Sea and Europe, but the bay and mainland beyond. To reach the open sea you have to first sail round the hook of Colaba. What they call the ‘back bay’ in fact faces the sea. At the top, at the end of Marine Drive, the backwash has deposited the sandy stretch of Chowpatty, Bombay’s urban beach. The wind whips up the sand, and the entrance smells vaguely of sewage, but for twenty rupees you can hire a mat to sit on, and for another twenty eat a plate of delicious pani puri standing up at the Badshah puri stall. A tiny big wheel is powered by hand: the crew grab hold of the bars at the top and then hang on and swing down to the bottom before climbing back up on the shaky-looking apparatus. The toys are on the correct scale for the children thronging the beach and braving the sea: plastic baubles and windmills on sticks. As the sun goes down behind the wall of buildings along the Walkeshwar Road, we look for a cab and all too soon it will be time to go home.